On the velocity of books

How fast do you read? I probably average a book a week, but I’m not as quick as I used to be, and rarely finish books in a single sitting. As a teenager, I read Pet Sematary on a damp (is there any other kind?) Bank Holiday Monday. I bought Messiah by Boris Starling – one of the most thrilling and steady-eyed serial killer novels I’ve come across – in a secondhand bookshop one Saturday tea-time, and finished it as the clock ticked over into Sunday. And Robert Harris’s Fatherland, set in a world where the Nazis won the war, is an extraordinary piece of work – one of those rare books I started to re-read almost immediately.

The examples given above are all genre novels, and their appeal lies with the breathless velocity at which you attack them. But as I’ve grown older, and read more widely, I’ve discovered other authors working within these confines who actively shun this sort of approach. Rather, they are more interested in disrupting the ways in which I read their books, and playing with this whole idea of speed.

house of leaves coverI’ve talked elsewhere about House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski’s haunted house novel, which uses a variety of visual tricks to turn the book itself into a labyrinth. As Danielewski himself said, ‘the density of the text intentionally slows the reader down, reorients the reader, redresses that question of direction inside the book.‘ A later chapter, describing the escape from the house, ‘only has a few sentences per page so the reader will move through a hundred pages a lot quicker.

Just as Danielewski controls the reader using typographical techniques, so David Peace does it through his use of language. I’ve long been an admirer of Peace, whose best writing is equal parts poetry and prose. His ‘Red Riding’ quartet is an extraordinary achievement, a story of murder and corruption in 1970s and 1980s Yorkshire. The four novels grow increasingly ambitious, both in terms of their storytelling and also what they demand of the reader.

The last book in the series, Nineteen Eighty Three, has a complex structure which moves between past and present. One storyline centres on police detective Maurice Jobson, known as ‘The Owl’ – partly from the large-framed glasses he wears, but symbolic also of his watchful gaze. Jobson’s actions (and lack of them) are partly responsible for the corruption witnessed in the preceding three books, and he is a man ensnared by them. Peace reinforces this idea through the use of repetition, with one passage – actually a single sentence – used several times:

nineteen eighty threeI reach for my glasses and get out of the bed without waking her and I go through into the kitchen and I put on the light and fill the kettle and light the gas and find the teapot in the cupboard and the two cups and saucers and I rinse out the cups and then dry them and then take the milk out of the fridge and I pour it into the cups and put two teabags in the teapot and take the kettle off the ring and pour the water on to the teabags and let it stand, staring out of the window, the kitchen reflected back in the glass, a married man undressed but for a pair of white underpants and glasses, these thick lenses with their heavy black frames, a married man undressed in another woman’s flat at six o’clock in the morning.’

As the novel progresses, this paragraph subtly evolves to reflect Jobson’s changing circumstances – from married to divorced, before finally ending up alone, ‘an old man fully dressed at four o’clock in the morning.‘ Every time I came across it, it made me pause; then I would read my way carefully through it, like a man stepping from rock to rock across a fast-flowing river. Not the sort of thing you expect from a crime novel.

This repetitive use of language reaches a climax in Peace’s Red or Dead, the story of Bill Shankly’s management of Liverpool Football Club. I’m enjoying it, but that’s not to say it’s a breathless read. The writing reflects the constant grind of the football season, with matches described in detail and recurring, almost hypnotic phrases piled one on top of another. There is a relentlessness about it, even when Shankly is victorious. I’ve just reached the point where Liverpool win their first Division One Championship in 1964, but Peace does not dwell on the celebrations. Instead, Shankly is fixated on the future:

Bill knew that the time of the greatest victory was also the time of the greatest danger. These hours when the seeds were sown, these days when the seeds were planted. The seeds of complacency, the seeds of idleness. Watered with song, drowned with wine. The seeds of defeat. In showers of praise. That hypnotized men, that intoxicated men. And blinded men. Holes for their eyes, stitches for their lids. Finished men, forgotten men. In their houses, in their kitchens. At their windows. Redundant in the rain.

There’s an echo here of the earlier passage from Nineteen Eighty Three, both Jobson and Shankly consumed by their professions. It also demonstrates the ways in which Peace repeats certain words (‘seeds’, ‘men’), and whilst the cumulative effect in Red or Dead is very powerful, I can see why some responses to the book have been negative (and, much as I admire Peace, this parody from the Daily Telegraph had me in stitches). For anyone wanting to explore Peace’s work further, I wouldn’t recommend Red or Dead as a starting point.

Having said all this, I still find Peace’s challenge to the reader very exciting. It’s incredibly refreshing to see him pushing the boundaries of the genre novel, and in doing so re-shaping the reader’s relationship with the book. Peace slows that velocity right down, concentrating the reader on the same set of recurring images and words. Rollercoaster rides are all very well, but sometimes a more deliberate, contemplative journey can be just as thrilling.


  1. I’m reading about a book a week at the moment which is very poor for me. But I’ve got so much on it’s all I can manage. ,y ideal would be 2 a week which is my aim for October.

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